Studying Abroad During a Pandemic

Many Americans want to study abroad during their time in college, but what about during a pandemic?

by David Nelson / Garnet & Black

Many students dream their whole lives of studying abroad. Presenting opportunities to travel, immerse oneself in unique cultures and meet new people, studying abroad can be a life-changing experience. Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic changed lots of plans as students were sent home in Spring 2020 and universities canceled future programs. While the pandemic has complicated the traditional study abroad experience, it is still very possible to have a worthwhile semester abroad.

When Covid cases started to drastically rise during the Spring 2020 semester, the University of South Carolina recalled almost 800 students who were abroad and canceled all summer programs. This decision cut many students’ semesters short, forcing them to leave before doing all the things they wanted to experience.

Julia Williams was among the hundreds of UofSC students sent home in Spring 2020. Her time in Spain was cut short, leaving her with only a partial experience abroad.

One of the main reasons students like Williams wanted to go abroad is for the opportunity to travel. Prior to the pandemic, Williams was able to visit three different islands in Ecuador and many cities in Morocco. Leaving your host region and exploring other parts of the world are attractive aspects of going abroad, especially in Europe. Although your host region could be Germany, it's easy to visit France for the weekend and see the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night or go to an exciting Saint Patrick's Day celebration in Ireland. Williams and hundreds of other UofSC students in Europe would have taken advantage of this had the pandemic not sent them home early.

“It was so sad because I had to leave my friends early and wasn’t able to go on all the trips I wanted to. I am still incredibly grateful I was able to go, but I wished I was able to stay for the whole semester,” Williams said. 

The vast opportunities to travel make Europe a desirable host region, and 55.7% of students studying abroad in the 2018-2019 academic year chose to study there. A quick plane, train or even car ride can lead you to a completely different country and culture, making each student’s experience very unique. Travel restrictions due to COVID-19 made this very difficult for students and had a negative impact on many of their experiences.

While the decrease of traveling is a sad reality of the pandemic, it can also be viewed as a positive. Travel restrictions in Europe force students to remain in their host country, which encourages them to immerse themselves in the local culture.

Morgan Inabinet is the UofSC Assistant Director for Global Health, Safety and Security for Global Carolina, and she has noticed that some students see the lack of traveling as a positive. “Overwhelmingly, our returnee students have expressed that even during the pandemic, they were still able to have a worthwhile education abroad experience and were grateful for that experience," Inabinet said. "One change that many students have mentioned is that the pandemic encouraged them to remain in their host city and really get to know it as a temporary local.”

Another potential positive of studying abroad during the pandemic is less tourism. Some universities, like the University of Maryland and Columbia University, have canceled abroad programs altogether, so the number of students in other countries is smaller than usual. It has become easier to leisurely walk along the Grand Canal in Venice, gaze at the Eiffel Tower with an unobstructed view and even wait in a shorter line at the Louvre Museum to see the Mona Lisa. Experiences can be more enjoyable when overwhelming crowds and lines are replaced with silence and alluring views.

Riley Specht, a junior nursing major, took advantage of these positive changes when she spent her Spring 2021 semester in Florence. At the time, Italy was broken into zones depending on the amount of Covid cases. Although Florence was in the second-worst zone, Specht thinks it is worth it to go abroad during a pandemic.

“I still had an amazing experience and got to see a different side of Italy that no one has been able to see studying abroad in the past. My favorite part was meeting so many amazing friends, enjoying Italian culture and food and traveling to so many beautiful places throughout Italy,” Specht said.

The potential positives of going abroad during these times seem to be making an impact on UofSC students’ lives. Inabinet has seen little change in student interest and opinions on studying abroad.

“The number of Fall 2021 education abroad students is quite similar to a typical fall semester pre-pandemic, and our advising appointments are currently booked through September. It certainly seems that there is still an interest in international education experiences,” Inabinet said. “I think going through this pandemic has reminded us that while international travel can be complicated, it builds a sense of international connectedness.”

Students still seem very interested in going abroad even though there can still be restrictions in their host region. Depending on the student's vaccination status, it is possible they will be required to get tested or quarantine upon arrival. Rules are continuously changing and universities are keeping a close eye on specific restrictions.

Studying abroad prior to 2020 looks very different than it does now in both good and bad ways. Congested tourist attractions are now more peaceful and enjoyable. Hopping around to different cities or countries is replaced with immersing oneself in local culture instead. It seems as though as long as UofSC continues to let students go abroad, students will keep going. Interest hasn’t declined and students’ experiences haven’t been drastically hindered, which is exciting to hear if you are one of the thousands of students who have always dreamed of going abroad.